How I Learned to View Writing as a Spiritual Discipline

I read Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic a few months ago. I love books about creativity and adored Liz’s Magic Lessons podcast, so I couldn’t wait to dig into this book. (Admittedly, I’ve tuned out for season 2 of the podcast, but I still recommend the first season.) I began thinking I was reading a book about one thing (writing), but it turned out to be about much more than that. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the book’s subtitle isn’t “creative writing beyond fear.” It’s, “creative living beyond fear.”

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Some of Liz’s ideas–particularly about inspiration, ideas, and how they find us–are a little…woo-woo, shall we say? Evan rolled his eyes as I relayed some passages to him (which was absolutely the reaction I expected); he is far too rational for that sort of thing. I didn’t always agree wholeheartedly, but so much of what she said resonated with me.

Liz’s writing is never explicitly faith-based (though she often alludes to various kinds of spirituality), but as she described the Muse and inspiration and ideas, I thought about the Holy Spirit. Scripture attests to the idea that he keeps fellowship with us, and that we were created in the image of a very creative God. I thought of how Jesus asked us to be co-creators and to play an active, collaborative role in building his kingdom. I thought of what Nathan Foster says about praying with our imagination.

I found myself thinking about creatively approaching every area of life: motherhood, career, marriage, friendship. Let alone writing. Books that work their way into every nook and cranny of my existence are, in my opinion, the best kind.

When talking about her favorite poet, Liz wrote, “He became a poet the way other men become monks: as a devotional practice, as an act of love, and as a lifelong commitment to the search for grace and transcendence. I think this is probably a very good way to become a poet. Or to become anything, really, that calls to your heart and brings you to life.”

In the margin, I scribbled, “This is how I want to become a writer.” But, truly, that is how I want to become everything: daughter, sister, wife, mother, teacher, writer, friend. I want each role I play to be lived in out in a furious, generous act of love. I want it all to be evidence of my lifelong commitment to Jesus and the building of his kingdom.

Emily Freeman writes a blog series about unconventional and unexpected spiritual disciplines: practices like beginning where you are, learning nothing, and wearing better pants. Those posts are some of my favorites, because I am learning to view all of my life as a spiritual discipline. A spiritual discipline is anything we do day-in and day-out, like breathing, that connect us more to our souls and our God.

I usually describe writing as a hobby. When I was a journalism major, I would have described it as my future, hoped-for career. At certain times, I’ve described it as a sanity-saver. But it wasn’t until recently that I also began to understand writing, too, as a spiritual practice.

I am constantly scribbling prayers in the margins of my journal and Bible, and when I blog, it’s most often about the ways I see God showing up in and around me. But the connection goes even further: The very act of writing feels like prayer, like communion, like living and moving and having my being in Jesus.

 

You can read all the posts in my series on spiritual disciplines here.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

–Pablo Picasso

The boys and I went to the library yesterday. We are so fortunate to have an amazing library nearby–it’s exactly what you could most hope for in a library. Kids are loud and running. They play and read by themselves, with their parents, with their friends. The shelves display a slew of brightly colored books, and the floors are covered with cushions and bean bags and carpet squares. Throughout the room are open-ended, creative toys of every kind imaginable. The children know the librarians by name; we never walk in without Ian asking, “Where’s Miss Monica?”

Along one side of the building, the walls curve like a wave. From end to end, they are covered with displays like a clothesline; sometimes, blown-up copies of a classic children’s book illustrations will hang there, or sometimes, large letters of the alphabet.

When we showed up at the library today, the walls were adorned with a display of artwork from the neighborhood elementary school.

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Ian occupied himself at the train table, Leo dozed in the stroller, and I strolled along those curved walls, looking at piece after piece. Watercolor and colored pencil, pastels and crayon. Realism and cubism and pure fun. See that human model in the picture above, with the red shading? There were dozens of pieces just like that, each in different colors and focused on a different part of the figure. (I kept thinking that it would be cool to hang a series of those in a row down a hallway in my house.)

I have really fond memories of my elementary school art classes. I remember learning about pointillism, patiently creating the image of a fruit bowl with my set of scented markers. I remember drawing random squiggles across a page, and then filling every open space that remained with a different pattern. I remember struggling to come up with enough diverse patterns–what a lesson in creativity that must have been.

One of the men in our current small group is a painter, and you should see the amazing stuff he creates. His paintings look like photographs; it blows me away. Once after Leo was born, we hosted group at our house, and I told Evan, “I feel like I need to take down all my craft projects, if Dennis is going to be here.” It’s true–I have canvas that I’ve swirled color across, song lyrics and Scripture verses I’ve displayed throughout the house, but nothing that–in the presence of someone who actually makes a living creating with paint and canvas–I would call “art.”

My grandmother, Nanny, is a watercolor artist. Her Christmas card is my favorite every year, because she paints a beautiful winter landscape. Right now, I’m looking across the room at a landscape she painted, and we have several other pieces by her as well. They are some of my most prized possessions, the kind of thing I’d want to carry out of our home in the midst of a fire. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of watching Nanny paint and painting alongside her.

I’m so grateful for elementary school art teachers, who are told by politicians and standardized tests that their subject area is insignificant, their classroom supplies a waste of funding, and yet show up to work every day to tell children the truth about the very way they were made: “You, child. You are an artist.” They create space in which children learn to experiment, to mess up, to express, to practice. It’s a lesson I needed then, and it’s a lesson I need all the more today.

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So, today: let’s be artists. In our kitchens, on our computers, with our words, with our hands. With our paintbrushes and fabric swatches and screwdrivers and frying pans. In our laboratories and cubicles, in meetings and in nature, from 9-5 and in the wee hours. With our kind words and our open hearts.

Let’s do what we were made to do: create something good.

“When we live free, we are able to give freedom. When we live loved, we are able to give love. When we are secure, we are able to offer security. God reveals himself through every artist, and the artist is you.”

Emily FreemanA Million Little Ways

 

The unexpected thing I learned from All the Light We Cannot See

Earlier this week, I wrote about how All the Light We Cannot See is the best book I’ve ever read. (You can read that post here.) Besides the amazing writing and the wonderful characters, reading this book and learning more about it reminded me of something important.

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Last week, I was listening to Episode 6 of the podcast What Should I Read Next? Anne interviewed Tsh Oxenreider, who chose All the Light as a book she loved. In the discussion of the book, either Anne or Tsh mentioned that it took Anthony Doerr ten years to write this book. TEN YEARS. That blew me away. Ten years is a long time. Talk about a life’s work.

So often, I want an immediate return on my investments. I talk to Ian about obedience a handful of times and want him to obey from there on out. I meet a new acquaintance for coffee and hope a deep and abiding friendship immediately emerges. I want to sit in front of my computer for a couple hours and hammer out a blog post or article that resonates deeply with thousands. All the Light reminds me that anything worth doing is worth doing well…and sometimes, “well” means slowly.

I can’t remember anything I’ve ever worked on that required a long runway from conception to completion. School is broken up into grades and then further into semesters, quarters, and weeks. Each of those periods is guided by objectives, and you indicate your mastery (or not) at the end with a test. Everything has a clear beginning, clear end, and a clear outcome. As an elementary school teacher, of course, that pattern continues. (And because I only taught for one year before changing careers, I didn’t have the benefit of watching my abilities gradually change and improve over time.) In children’s ministry, deadlines come fast: every single Sunday, in fact.

As a stay-at-home-mom, I now find myself in a sort of limbo. The lack of deadlines, lack of clear-cut accomplishments, and inability to say, “Here’s what I’ve been working on and here’s what I have to show for it,” has been driving me a bit crazy.

But there is value in working toward the a singular goal slowly over time and seeing it come fully to fruition, no matter how long it takes. That’s the deal with parenting. We work hard, day in and day out for years and years. Our children will long outlive us (God willing), meaning we will never see all the fruits of our labors. Those children then parent their own and so on, and the impact of our work goes far beyond what we’ll ever see our understand. This is also what Jesus talked about when he asked his disciples to pursue a long obedience in the same direction. Following Jesus is not simply a “before and after,” but a gradual unfolding and long-term transformation.

I’m not the first to say that instant gratification defines our culture these days. We text instead of waiting for people to return our calls, we order toilet paper and paper towels with the literal click of a button, we swipe cards instead of counting out our coins, we binge watch instead of sitting down at appointed times each week. So much of that is helpful and good. (And as a parent, I could not be more grateful for the fact that diapers can quickly be delivered to my doorstep.)

But I also wonder if all this has skewed my perspective on what it means to be successful and do meaningful work. I want something to show for my efforts, and fast. And when that doesn’t happen, I feel like I’ve failed.

I’m sure I knew this already, somewhere deep down, but this was the surprising truth All the Light We Cannot See reminded me of: the best things take time. I am so grateful that Anthony Doerr was willing to show up and do the work of writing this novel, day after day for ten years. No doubt, some days he wondered if the story would ever be finished, if he would ever hold the published book in his hands. But here we are.

So, friends, let’s do the work. Let’s parent the children, write the books, relinquish the perfectionism, learn the languages. Whatever your work may be, let’s remember that the work is worth it, no matter how long it takes.

I absolutely loved this interview with Anthony Doerr, from before he was done writing All the Light We Cannot See. (He alludes to the novel towards the end of the interview.) His thoughts on the hard work of writing are especially good (and encouraging!).